Shapeshifter: The Manifestations of Morgan Le Fay

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dr. Eve Salisbury

Second Advisor

Dr. Jana Schulman

Third Advisor

Dr. Jil Larson

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Molly Lynde-Recchia


"Shapeshifter: The Manifestations of Morgan le Fay" focuses on the roles of Morgan le Fay in selected medieval through contemporary Arthurian works. Morgan's ever-changing portrayals employ and confound dichotomies and archetypes that attempt to restrict identity. The term "shapeshifter" evokes Morgan's ability to evade the shape(s) others—authors, critics, and characters—attempt to impose upon her, to use the expectations of others against them, and to move among, outside of, and around assumptions as necessary. This versatility also demonstrates by comparison how culturally determined definitions of identity inhibit other characters (such as knights) with whom she interacts.

Traditionally, Morgan's character is viewed as devolving from a benign or even positive role in Latin sources such as the Vita Merlini to a malicious one in the Vulgate and Malory. A careful look at the Vita and similar sources reveals, however, that complexity infuses her character from the beginning. Morgan's representations, rooted in Celtic and Greco-Roman mythology and folklore, create ambiguities that remain evident in later medieval sources.

Morgan and her analogues, the Loathly Lady and fairy mistress, teach knights such as Gawain and Sir Launfal more complex lessons about themselves and their world than life at a rigid court allows. Fluid and variable, her "marginalized" position as denizen of the forest grants her the power and freedom to critique social strictures; her ability to ignore the constraints placed on women enables her to show knights how their identities restrict them. In Malory, she extends this role by acting as political advisor to Arthur, reminding him of his own self-imposed limits created by his refusal to address the damaging disloyalty endangering his rule.

Enticing hints of Morgan's multivalence appear in the Renaissance and following eras, even as representations of female characters retreat to archetypes such as the femme fatale in Spenser's Faerie Queene and Romantic and Victorian poetry and art. In the modern and contemporary eras, Morgan's roles in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and three fantasy novels suggest a tantalizing potential for mutability that is simultaneously undercut by societal and authorial concerns.

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